Sensemaking Concepts Provide "Night Vision Goggles for the Mind"

July 2015
Topics: Social Behavior, International Relations, Psychology, Artificial Intelligence
For today's warfighter, interacting with foreign populations means understanding more than technology. There are many other factors at play, including culture, society, and religion. A new MITRE book offers a comprehensive look at making sense of it all.
MITRE's Jill Egeth and Gary Klein display the new Sensemaking book.

Did you ever wish you had a way to see and assess complex situations quickly and accurately, avoiding painful missteps? You aren't alone. The United States government wants the same thing—and in many cases, the stakes couldn't be higher.

Take our nation's engagement with foreign populations. It has become more complex due in part to the ever-changing geopolitical context and unconventional conflicts in unfamiliar terrains. The current state of play requires U.S. armed forces to understand, anticipate, and adapt to how factors such as culture, society, religion, and ideology influence the behavior of others. Warfighters need more than the traditional set of equipment and devices; they need a way to develop broader, deeper operational capabilities.

What they need are "night vision goggles for the mind." That's how Gary Klein describes the concepts presented in a new MITRE publication, Sociocultural Behavior Sensemaking: State of the Art in Understanding the Operational Environment.

A MITRE senior principal scientist in cognitive science and artificial intelligence and a co-editor of the book, Klein says, "Similar to night vision goggles that allow you to see things you otherwise couldn't, the techniques and research documented in the book provide ways to see a landscape of plausible outcomes and possibilities for different environments and operations."

Start Making Sense

So what is sociocultural sensemaking? It's about creating understanding under high complexity or uncertainty. That "complexity" includes everything from subtle differences in language and local customs to the massive amount of social media data from Twitter, Facebook, and elsewhere. According to Klein, reaching understanding in this environment requires a combination of both "situation awareness" and "option awareness."

Situation awareness involves:

  • perceiving the sociocultural factors and elements in an environment;
  • comprehending the impact of such factors on behavior; and
  • projecting future behavior based on this comprehension.

Option awareness involves:

  • comparing courses of action and their impact on outcomes;
  • distinguishing the situational factors that mediate better vs. worse outcomes; and
  • creating new courses of action that improve outcomes based on this understanding.

With so much complexity, it can be hard for humans to make the right decisions rapidly and predict the possible outcomes. "Oftentimes, we wait until we have fewer options so that it’s easier to make a decision," Klein explains. "However, once you have fewer options you may no longer have options that are as robust as you need."

This is where computers can help. "For a person to sort through the options on his or her own, the computational combinations are just too huge. It's very similar to the story in the film The Imitation Game. Computers can do this much better than we can do mentally. They can look across thousands of combinations we can’t possibly do in our heads."

Collecting the Advances of a Groundbreaking Program

MITRE has worked in this field for a number of years. In 2008, the Department of Defense brought us on board as the systems engineer for a five-year DoD research and engineering program, the Human Social Culture Behavior (HSCB) Modeling Program. The program supported a wide range of research and advanced technology development, not only in the military arena, but also within academia and industry.

As the program approached the end of its five-year funding, program director Capt. Dylan Schmorrow asked MITRE to develop both a book to document the advances made by the HSCB, and this book to examine the current state of the art.

The goal was to demonstrate how the military can use this kind of information and improve the likelihood of success for operations anywhere in the world. To reach their goal, the editors surveyed the landscape of work with an unbiased perspective. Jill Egeth, MITRE's department head for social behavioral sciences and another co-editor of the book, notes MITRE is well positioned to do this as the operator of several federally funded research and development centers.

MITRE brought together a mix of experts from a variety of organizations to author the chapters; many had worked on HSCB research programs. Each chapter received anonymous peer review to ensure accuracy and has the ability to stand alone. That way, if readers are interested in only some of the topics, they can download just those topics as individual PDFs available on MITRE's website.

The authors highlight examples of recent advances, discuss the science and technology gaps, and propose strategies for incorporating recent advances into operational use. "Capt. Schmorrow's vision was for us to set the stage for what comes next as far as shaping research in this field, and I think this book meets that vision," Egeth says.

A One-Stop Shop for Several Communities

The MITRE team predicts a wide audience for the book because it provides a rare consolidated source for all the work in this field.

"For researchers, the book really is a one-stop shop," Klein says. "This way you don’t have to go to different journals and publications covering the four areas in the book. It’s all in one place. Even if all you did was to look at all the references cited in the book that would be a huge benefit in and of itself."

Similarly, for the funding agencies in each of the armed services, the book gives a preview of the new advances that are coming down the line. This provides guidance on what they might fund and build on to help the warfighter.

Another group likely to benefit is the operational community. For end users looking to improve warfighting processes, the book provides a compendium of work currently in laboratories that could be pulled into operations.

Egeth describes it as providing an understanding of "the art of the possible. It helps identify what technology and sociocultural understanding can do for them, so they can figure out what tools they really need."

Sociocultural Behavior Sensemaking is available in print through Amazon. You may also download PDF versions of the entire book or single chapters directly from MITRE.

—by Gretchen Pierce

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